I grew up with a gentle, kind man for a father. I witnessed him love my mother, openly acknowledge her and appreciate who she was and what she did, both inside and outside of the home. I’ve never not seen my dad respect and revere her. Married for 54 years, they are still best friends.
Throughout their marriage, my mom played many championship roles. She was wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, volunteer, and eventually an executive with a powerful non profit organization in New York City. When she resumed her career after staying home with me and my brother, my dad took over the roles she’d played. After coming home from teaching all day, he would check in with me and my brother, then prepare and serve dinner. Mom often didn’t get home until seven. This transition wasn’t easy for him, but he took it on without question and came to enjoy it.
My brother is a good man, too. More outspoken than my dad, but a man who loves and respects his wife and marvels at all she does. He had a great role model in our dad growing up. Many women throughout the years have said he’s a genuinely good man (as opposed to a jerk). Even my significant other, who is old school, brash and not exactly the warm and fuzzy type (think Clint Eastwood in his early years), openly acknowledges how motherhood is the most thankless job in the world and deserves more respect than it gets.
In light of the massive cultural shifts around the many roles both women and men play in the world today, the occasional comment some interpret as sexist is bound to happen. Whether it’s liked or not, “traditional” male viewpoints about women are part of many men’s DNA.
Are These Comments Sexist?
I’m writing this personal essay as the 2016 Rio summer Olympics wind down. Even with the closing ceremony behind us, the shadow of a mass of articles proclaiming how rampant sexism is at this year’s games darkens the many fine achievements by both female and male athletes alike. Articles from the Huffington Post to the BBC to CBS shout about how sexism was alive and well in Rio. Recent headlines like these show up at the top of search engines:
“Are some Olympic comments sexist?”
“Is Olympic coverage undercutting women’s achievements?”
“The most sexist moments at the Olympics — so far”
Additionally, videos like this one pointing out male sportscaster’s sexist remarks have gone viral on Facebook. Comments about female athletes being wives or girlfriends, or certain athletes being moms, should be considered a sport of its own, it argues. During the volleyball match between the US and Switzerland, the commentator marveled at Kerry Walsh-Jennings’ performance only after he mentioned she is the mother of three.
Is a comment like this really sexism, though?
Plenty of people on Twitter think so. The social media platform has been lit up with backlash comments related to commentary like this. The most common tweet asks a variation of the following question:
Why do male commentators have to bring up husbands, boyfriends and motherhood in the same sentence as breaking a world record, swimming the race of her life, or winning another gold medal?
I’d like to take a different stand on what’s going on here. I believe the comments about female athletes being wives or moms are not driven by sexism.
Rather, they are fueled by awe.
The Power of Awe
In his bestselling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger explores the nature of awe (within the context of marketing). He writes: “Awe is the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity or might. It’s the experience of confronting something greater than yourself.”
Think about it. Men see female athletes accomplishing remarkable feats in sports men also play. Isn’t she amazing? seems to be the sentiment behind their comments as opposed to an afterthought about their athletic achievements because of their maternal or matrimonial status. After all, bearing kids is the one thing men cannot do. And until science figures out how to alter human physiology, it’s the one thing men won’t be doing any time soon.
I would argue their comments about female athletes being mothers or wives/girlfriends weren’t premeditated on a white board in the back room before the cameras turned on (that would actually be sick.) I don’t believe what they said was cruel, mean, prejudicial or intentional.
Rather, their comments are a compliment of the tallest order. Coming from a place of pure wonder. Marvel.
Let’s Not Forget Ego
And a hefty dose of ego. Bragging is a big part of today’s sporting world. When men can point out to other men any advantage they or someone in their circle has over a competitor, they’ll do it. Hence, the impetus behind this viral tweet that has generated everything from pure outrage to public apologies from the Chicago Tribune for posting it in the first place:
— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) August 7, 2016
To me, this tweet is more a reflection of male ego bragging to his buddies (“Look what my wife did!”) than a minimization of Corey Cogdell-Unrein’s achievements in the Olympics.
Is calling men competitive or egotistical a sexist thing for me to say? No, because my intention is not to put men down, but rather to enlighten all of us to gender nuances, especially in elite sports like the Olympics. Men say things. So do women. Is there work to be done to narrow the gap? Absolutely.
But there are other ways to do it besides a social media
shouting shaming match.
Our Brains Have Yet to Catch Up with Our Achievements
I believe what lies behind male sportscasters’ comments is not intentional discrimination against women, but rather reverence for all women can do. (Admittedly, with the remnants of conditioning over the course of millennia hanging around the edges. The Grand Canyon wasn’t forged in a day, after all. Some thought processes are so deeply ingrained in our brains, re-programming them could take thousands of years.) But just as shaming women doesn’t work to foster positive change, neither does shaming men about what they say. As Dr. Brené Brown has shown through her research, shame is lethal and can destroy lives.
Is that honestly the goal towards which we strive in society?
If we can examine the comments through a lens of deep respect rather than discrimination, they radiate an entirely different aura. One that’s much closer to the truth about human progress. One that’s far more optimistic about our future as a species than just about anything else. One that gives us hope for making strides towards unity rather than undoing so much of the work that’s already been done.
Only then can real change begin to take shape and its place next to the champions — both male and female — as they stand with their medals on the podium.